Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Diana Abu-Jaber talks about Birds of Paradise

Diana Abu-Jaber's work is smart, moving, funny and brilliantly written, and she's also one of the warmest and most generous writers on the planet. She's the author of the award winning memoir, The Language of Baklava, the best-selling novels Origin andCrescent, which was awarded the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction and the American Book Award. Her first novel Arabian Jazz won the 1994 Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. A frequent contributor to NPR, she teaches at Portland State University.
Birds of Paradise, about family, Miami, a runaway daughter, delectable baking, loss and longing, knocked me out. I'm so honored to have Diana here--and I want to mention that I reviewed this novel for, a review which will come out mid-September. Diana will be in NYC reading at the great McNally Jackson on October 10th. Thank you so much, Diana.

I love the way Miami is so vivid in the pages—the lushness, the edge of danger—all captured perfectly. What made you decide to set the novel there?

The easiest answer is that we live most of the year in Miami. But of course then it gets more complicated-- there are all the tiny sensory details of this city that spilled into the book. There was the day when I was sitting in the back yard, eating croissants, reading Chekhov instead of writing, and noodling around watching the tiniest ants racing up the latticework of my orchids. Somehow these creatures led me to visualize a woman in a professional apron; her back was to me; I could see she had strong shoulders and I knew she had an iron will. The moment came, in some way, from the discreet sensual elements of that setting. There were several run-ins with several neighbors' pet tropical birds that became part of the plot point. And to me, thematically, Miami is the sense of secrecy, of hidden communities, the warrens of downtown, the crime scene, a uniquely manic real estate market, the vast, grotesque disparities between economic classes, the powerful environmental beauty....This is such a potent, stimulating place it's almost impossible to live here and not have it imprinted on one's work. At the same time, we'd only lived here for five years when I started writing the book, which gave me a bit of an edgy distance--useful for artistic perspective. At the same time, writing the novel became part of my own attempt to learn how to love this city.

A lot of times novelists have no idea where books come from, but I have to ask anyway. What idea sparked this novel?

I think one of the biggest inspirations for me was simple fear. My husband Scotty and I were finally talking about starting a family and I was thinking a lot about all the things that scared me about parenthood. We were both in our forties and I wanted to understand what had kept us away from the question for so long. At the same time, I'd been reading about runaways and human trafficking and all the ways that young girls get into trouble, and so the book eventually grew out of these parental nightmares and anxieties!

Birds of Paradise dips into the lives of a myriad group of characters without missing a beat, instantly involving us. Was this a structure you decided on right away, rather than giving it over to one distinct voice?

Thank you, Caroline-- I'm so glad to hear that. As I recall, I'd started the novel with only Avis, the mother's, perspective in mind. Years earlier, I'd written another novel from three perspectives that never really coalesced: I put years of hard labor into it but ended up shelving the manuscript in misery. So I was highly motivated not to try that approach again. Then I'd read several novels from multiple perspectives that I'd loved, like Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, and Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, and I think that approach started to work its way into my imagination. One day, after I'd written most of the opening segment with Avis, I heard her daughter Felice's "voice" very clearly in my head (even though it's a third-person perspective) and I decided to take the plunge into shifting points of view.

I have to comment on the food details because my mouth was watering at the pastries and the organic food market! I bet research on that was fun, yes?

Absolutely! I grew up in a family of serious bakers: my Irish-German grandmother was sort of obsessed with baking and she'd turn her home into a bakery every year from Thanksgiving until New Year's Day. I inherited the sugar-fiend gene and there's not much I like better than giving over whole mornings, days, to baking. I love the meditation of it as well as the reward. Much of my actual research came from years of interviews and study I did when I was a food writer for the Oregonian newspaper. I wrote a restaurant news column and was particularly fascinated by the pastry chefs, how they often got second billing after the chefs and owners, but how many of them were actually sort of driven mad-geniuses. There was one pastry chef in particular who'd been recruited from Alain Ducasse who become notorious: he'd order insanely expensive ingredients, no matter how the owners would plead with him, and create such achingly beautiful creations that people almost couldn't bear to eat them. He got fired all over town and finally fled back home. Chefs like this-- their quixotic passions and obsessions--were great inspirations for Avis' character.

Felice , the daughter who ran away, was so sympathetic, despite some of her actions, and so achingly real, that I’d love it if you could talk about how you build character in your books.

It seems that, for me, building character is very much like building relationships in real life: there may be an initial spark, a beguiling trait, or moment of seduction, but there is also-- if I'm lucky-- a long, slow unveiling. In real life, we present public faces to each other and it takes time to peel away the layers, to learn about each other's history, past, motives, oddities. When writing characters, it's like the process of friendship runs in reverse: you slowly accumulate the details and history, layering them, stacking a series of transparencies, building their minds and bodies into three dimensions. I tell my students, you want to write characters that will cast shadows, characters that have breath and spirit.

I often take walks to think about my characters, what they want, what they will do next. Sometimes I talk them over with my husband or another writing friend. On occasion, I'll write about them in my journal, create a sort of shadow diary to follow the novel and help me to investigate the deeper currents. I often write brief, secret back-stories or free-write about the characters and their motives. At some point later in the process, I lean heavily on writing friends-- a group, if I'm in one-- to tell me what's missing, what's off, what's odd. And I shuffle back and forth, erasing, filing in, erasing, filling in. I try to be patient.

What’s obsessing you now?

I've been at work on another food memoir, a sort of follow up to The Language of Baklava. When I set out, I'd thought it was going to be about trying to raise a good, multi-cultural, adventurous eater. But as I've gotten into it, I actually seem to be writing a book about negotiating the tensions between being a writer and a parent and a woman. I've been going back in time, retracing my first teaching job at the University of Nebraska, writing about old relationships and conjuring up madeleines and meals of times past. It's funny, but I find writing memoirs an intensely evocative, visceral experience-- as if some part of my mind literally reoccupies those old places and feelings. It's sometimes wonderful and sort of dizzying and often very hard to relive some of those old times-- sort of like being swamped by the past. At the same time, all at once I'm pulling out those old favorite cookbooks--the Moosewood; Chez Panisse; The Golden Palate; and I start wanting to make the things I cooked back in the 90's-- odd, passing fancies--a certain pretzel or stew or cake.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Your questions were wonderful! And if people would like to know more, I'd love it if they'd come visit my website, or Twitter @dabujaber

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